They first met in New York City, at a photo shoot for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — two families on separate cancer journeys, but with so much common ground over which to bond.
And bond they did, the families of Markell, a teen with bone cancer, and Arianna, a young girl with a brain tumor.
“Markell was playing with all the other kids when we walked into the studio,” said Arianna’s dad, Enrique, recalling a relationship that began in 2010 and continues with next month’s St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend. “The kids were all laughing, they were having a great time. I said, ‘Now here’s a kid who knows how to command attention.’ ”
Weeks later, when the families were back in Memphis, back at St. Jude, they ran into each other in the waiting room. Their journeys had intersected again. That initial connection had sparked something greater.
“And that was it,” said Markell’s mom, Monique. “Immediately, it was like we were all one big family.”
They became inseparable — Markell’s family (Monique and Markell, and Markell’s siblings when they were visiting) and Arianna’s family (Enrique and his wife, Leticia, and Arianna and her little sister).
Arianna’s family opened their home to Markell’s family for Thanksgiving. Markell loved Leticia’s cornbread, so much so that whenever he came over, she made it. Every time he felt sick, she made it. Even toward the end of his life, Leticia’s cornbread was something he craved.
“It’s not family, but they just get you,” said Leticia, describing how relationships between St. Jude families can run so deep. “And it doesn’t have to be the same culture or color. Nothing has to be the same, but the fact that our hearts hurt the same, and we’re trying to find healing the best way that we can. And we have been able to do it together.”
The families’ relationship was on display in a 2014 video about Markell. There’s Markell on screen, looking cool in shades, lighting up rooms with his smile, and announcing his beloved New Orleans Saints’ first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
And there’s Enrique on screen, telling a story from that first meeting in New York. He says, “I remember Monique told me, ‘We ran into Tracy Morgan.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’” Later, when Enrique asked Markell about meeting the actor and comedian, Markell corrected him: “No, Tracy Morgan met me.”
Enrique laughs, then says, “So that’s like the first memory I have of Markell. He’s just always been a celebrity in himself, you know?”
As Markell’s treatment became more difficult, as his cancer returned again and again, he and Enrique grew closer. They went to Memphis Grizzlies games together. They talked through the night. Markell told Enrique, “I love you like a dad.”
The day before Markell’s leg was to be amputated, he called Enrique with a request: Come play basketball with me.
“That’s always stuck with me so much,” Enrique says in the 2014 video. “To know that I came to essentially play his last basketball game, with his two legs, as a kid. I think the sun went down before he got tired. It was a good day.”
The next image in the video is a close-up of Markell. “That’s my boy, ’Rique. We always hang out together. Always go to games. He always take me places. He do a lot for me, and that’s why I love him.”
And likewise, when Arianna’s cancer returned and nothing more could be done for her, Monique and Markell embraced Enrique and Leticia, helping them through a world of firsts without Arianna — first birthdays, first holidays — after she died in 2014.
In the end, yes, the families had come to share the ultimate loss, the loss of a child to cancer.
Except that it wasn’t the end. Because the bond that was forged between the families at St. Jude would stay strong and even grow. After Markell’s death, Monique moved her family permanently from Louisiana to Memphis, where Enrique and Leticia and their family live.
And on Dec. 1, during St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, the two families — in step, as always — will participate together in the 10K. The course will take them through the campus of St. Jude, where their children were treated — Markell for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer; Arianna for a rare brain cancer called ATRT — and a deep friendship was born.
“And I’m sure we’re going to cry,” Leticia said. “And I’m sure we’re going to laugh. Because you can’t help but think of the memories between us and them and our kids and not laugh, because they were crazy.”
Then she recalled one of those crazy moments — when Markell was losing his hair because of chemotherapy, and her children began pulling it out and gluing it to his face. “And they made him a beard with his hair,” Leticia said, laughing at the memory.
Marathon weekend will be only the second time Monique has returned to the hospital since Markell’s death in 2016. It will be the first time back for his siblings. And no doubt they’ll be filled with thoughts of Markell — a boy who endured six-and-a-half years of treatment, who lost a leg but never his spirit for life; a boy who, when he died at 16, practically his entire high school turned out for the funeral.
“I miss his personality the most,” Monique said. “He lit up a room. We’d stay up talking all night. Believe it or not, I even miss arguing with him.”
Earlier this year, Monique decided it was time to visit St. Jude, her first time since Markell’s death. Enrique was there to walk into the hospital with her.
“Being a bereaved mother is not easy,” Leticia said. “There were times Monique wanted to give up, but she hasn’t. She wants to make Markell proud. The pain we feel is so intense and constant, and sometimes it’s hard to continue fighting. But she does every day, with such grace and beauty.”
Enrique and Leticia know the struggle so well. They lived it with Arianna. For a year-and-a-half, she was cancer free. Then the cancer came back. She died just before her eighth birthday.
“We had an eighth birthday party for her early,” said Enrique. “But she was so sick, she had to leave before the piñata.”
They put the piñata away, determined to save it for another day when Arianna felt strong enough to swing at it, to crack it open and shower the floor with candy. When Arianna found out the other kids didn’t get to put on blindfolds and try to break it open, she broke down in tears.
“But the kids didn’t get any candy,” she cried, a sick girl putting others first.
So on St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, memories of Arianna will flow, but not just from her own family. And so it will be with Markell. They’ll both be remembered by their “one big family,” brought together by St. Jude and still on the journey, the best way they know how — together.
For Enrique, though, walking through the St. Jude campus on Marathon weekend will be about even more than memories and healing and savoring moments with friends so close they’re family. He’ll also be fulfilling a promise Markell had him make before he died: Take care of my family.
“I intend to do that every step of the way for the rest of our lives,” Enrique said. “The 10K represents every one of the steps we have taken and will take together in our journeys to now honor our kids’ legacies.”